TRAILBLAZING SCOTCH WHISKY SCIENTIST HONOURED


 

Sheila Burtles has been voted by leaders in the Scotch whisky industry to receive the first ever Jim Swan Award for Services to Scotch Whisky.  The award which launched in 2019, recognises the careers of unsung heroes working in Scotch whisky to collaborate for the benefit for the industry.

Sheila Burtles, aged 92, worked for Pentlands Research (now the Scotch Whisky Research Institute) as a sensory scientist, first joining the organisation in mid 1970s.   Her most famous achievement is as co-inventor of the first ever Scotch Whisky Flavour Wheel in 1979.  Working with Dr Jim Swan, she created a new visual tool and shaped a new language used in the assessment and understanding of whisky. 

Known as the Pentlands Wheel, the device was a world first and became a global success.  It has been developed into many new modern versions over decades by authors, academics, and major whisky brands worldwide.  Subsequent evolutions have even been seen in the development of flavour in brewing, coffee, wine and chocolate industries.

Ms Burtles received her award in a private presentation at her home in Edinburgh hosted by Charlie Maclean, the renowned whisky expert and judge in the Scottish Whisky Awards.  He commented;

“It is with the greatest possible pleasure that I have been asked to present this award.  I first met Sheila in 1992 when I was invited to a course which she was giving on sensory skills and without a word of a lie this course changed my life.  She really is an unsung hero of the Scotch whisky industry.  She deserves immense credit for making the link between chemistry and the language we use to describe flavour and for being the first to display it in a wheel.  This idea was taken up very rapidly taken up all over the world.  She really is a wonderful person and deserves every recognition.”

Kirsten Speirs, Director of KDMedia which runs the Scottish Whisky Awards, commented,

“The Scottish Whisky Awards team is proud to recognise Sheila Burtles’ career as a pioneer in the Scotch whisky industry. Sheila was a trailblazing scientist who used her own formidable skills to give students the confidence to identify flavour and aroma. Sheila successfully combined a career with family life way ahead of her time and was unphased by her regular appearance as the sole female in a distillery.  Instead, Sheila was confident in her knowledge, bold in her approach and often audacious in the interests of progress.   The Scotch Whisky Flavour Wheel is far from being Sheila’s only achievement but should be remembered as a global success which serves as another reminder of why Scotland is the world’s leading whisky nation.” 

 

BIOGRAPHY

Sheila Burtles is a sensory expert who was the first ever female scientist to advise Scotch Whisky distillery companies about flavour.  Her work, experience and knowledge gained over decades as a consultant to the industry, serve as a living legacy of everything we understand about the language of flavour used in Scotch whisky today.

She was instrumental in the creation of Pentlands Whisky Research which in 1976 formed as a collaboration of 6 distillery companies who agreed to share scientific research and results in Scotch whisky production. 

Her most famous achievement is as co-inventor of the first ever Whisky Flavour Wheel in 1979.  Working with Dr Jim Swan, she created a new visual tool and shaped a new language used in the assessment and understanding of whisky.  The wheel became a global success, and it has been developed into many new modern versions over decades by authors, academics, and major whisky brands worldwide.  Subsequent evolutions have even been seen in the development of flavour in the coffee, wine and brewing industries.

In its early days, the Whisky Flavour Wheel was an important part of training delivered by Sheila Burtles and her colleague, Dr Swan as they toured distilleries throughout the 1980s and 1990s. They were a highly respected team dispatched to test, teach and train people on flavour and the role of chemistry in whisky maturation.  

Born in Edinburgh in 1929, Sheila Burtles was educated at George Watsons College and graduated from Edinburgh University.  Aged 22, she earned a Fulbright Scholarship to LeHigh University in Pennysylvania, USA but returned to Scotland to an apprenticeship role with Edinburgh City Analysts working in a laboratory in the West End of the City.   

She progressed to Inveresk Research where she analysed the role of chemistry in understanding food and drink.  It was here that her team was first approached by a whisky company which had a problem with wood and flavour.  This became a pivotal moment in the direction of her career.  

Her most influential years were spent working directly with Dr Jim Swan at Pentland Research, latterly known as the Scotch Whisky Research Institute.  While Jim Swan was the chemistry expert, Sheila concentrated on encouraging individuals to appreciate their own sense of taste through her own series of tests.  Her interests were in understanding what people tasted and she was determined to give them the confidence to help identify it.  She championed her belief that whatever we taste as individuals is always right.   There are no wrongs.

She is endlessly fascinated by the dynamic interaction of taste and memory.  She once presented a student with a brown bottle which he duly sniffed and declared the word, “Grandma.”  Turned out, Grandma used to take this young man to Church every Sunday when she would present him with a cinnamon ball to stop him fidgeting.  The bottle of cinnamon had woken a memory and had taken him back to that very occasion in a matter of seconds.

Identifying sensory skills in people was her passion and she famously made the career of one young junior distillery worker who had been sent to the train station to collect her.  In the journey to the distillery, she struck up a conversation about taste and persuaded him to take a sensory test.  In reviewing his scores, she discovered a talent for identifying and communicating flavour and his career flourished.  He became the distillery’s most dependable sensory expert, sent to nose casks throughout the warehouse and report back to management.

In other breakthroughs, she also persuaded Jim Swan to welcome new individuals onto their training courses for the first time.  Training had previously been the privilege of distillery staff, but she was curious when she met a young journalist keen to learn the ways of sensory science.  Interested in his perspective, Sheila persuaded the bosses at Pentland to welcome the journalist on the course, and so continued the career of a young Mr Charles Maclean.

Burtles and Swan were a formidable and good-humoured team.  She remembers how she was famously referred to as ‘Bumbles’ in training sessions in reference to her awkward surname which was regularly mistaken for something else.   She enjoyed the humour and the jostling; she was unphased by her regular appearance as the sole female in a distillery.  Instead, she was confident in her knowledge, bold in her approach and often audacious in the interests of progress.

While she was dedicated to her career, her personal life also flourished.  She met a young doctor while on holiday with friends in Spain and married Dick Burtles in 1959. Dr Burtles was a paediatrician and became a highly respected doctor at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh.  They had two daughters, Sally and Emma, and settled in Scotland where Sheila continued her career in whisky and her husband developed his work as an anaesthetist, specialising in heart surgery. The joke was regularly made that she had the anaesthetic which everyone wanted.

Now at the grand age of 92, Sheila Burtles has accepted the Dr Jim Swan Award for Services to Scotch Whisky and it has been presented to her at her home in Edinburgh.   The commissioned statue made from aged whisky casks, joins a fascinating collection of memorabilia, including a framed copy of the famous original Whisky Flavour Wheel which hangs on the wall.

 

Kirsten Speirs

November 2021